Jefferson’s Bible and the Old Testament
Thomas Jefferson edited an abridged version of the Gospels. Using razor and paste, he eliminated all those passages in the Gospels that referred to the miracles of Jesus. He removed the resurrection, as well as those portions of the Gospels that imply that Jesus was divine. Or at least this is how Jefferson’s Bible, formally known as The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (1820), is often described: as a Bible in which Jesus becomes a human teacher and exemplar of the highest morality. But that interpretation is wrong.
if you read Jefferson’s Bible (a PDF is available online) there are countless references to God the father, and Jesus as the son of God. Heaven and Hell remain, and Jesus refers twice to the second coming (Matthew 24:36-41; Mark 13:32-33). Angels remain (Matthew 16:27), sinners burn in hell, and one small miracle finds its way in (John 18:6).
Jefferson restricts his Bible to the story of Jesus, but because Jesus is always talking about his filial relationship with the father, there is no way to remove these references without removing Jesus. It matters not whether you were born to a virgin; if you are a son of God, then you are no mere mortal. If your authority stems from your status as son of God, then yours is supernatural authority. See, for example, Luke 12:40, Matthew 13:37; Luke 9:58; Luke 17:26-27; Matthew 9:13.*
While Jesus refers to himself as the Son of God (Luke 22:68-70; Matthew 16:16-17), he more frequently refers to himself as the Son of Man. Does the term mean more than human? It depends on the context, but in most cases, including the examples quoted here, it means divine. The Son of Man is the Son of God.
Jefferson compiled his Bible in Greek, Latin, French, and English versions. He had one copy printed and bound, but it was never published, for he knew it would arouse widespread wrath. Like several of America’s founding fathers, Jefferson was a deist. Deists’ believe that God created the heavens and the earth, and then stepped away. God does not intervene in everyday life. He does not answer prayers. Heaven is unlikely.**
So where did all these myths come from?
If one is going to regard events such as the virgin birth, or the resurrection, as myths, it is still important to know where they came from, and why they reemerge in the New Testament. They came from the Old Testament. The New Testament was written to show that Jesus is the messiah predicted by the Old Testament. If the New Testament has a hidden agenda, that is it.
Consider the account of Jesus’ birth, which Jefferson redacts. Five times Matthew says that Jesus’ birth was according to scripture—that is, according to the Old Testament.
- Why was Jesus born of a virgin? Because the prophet Isaiah had predicted it (Matthew 1:22-23; compare Isaiah7:14; 8:8-10).
- Why was Jesus born in Bethlehem? For thus spoke the prophet Micah (Matthew 2:5-6; compare Micah 5:2).
- Why did Joseph, Mary, and Jesus flee Bethlehem for Egypt? Because the prophet declared “I have called my son out of Egypt.” (Matthew 2:15-16; compare Hosea 11:1)
- Why did Herod kill all the children under two years of age in Bethlehem? To fulfill the scriptures that Rachel (Jewish mothers in general) cried for her children (Matthew 2:17-18; compare Jeremiah 31:15).
- Why did Jesus end up in Nazareth? “So what the prophets had said came true: `He will be called a Nazarene.’” (Matthew 2:23).
Matthew has Jesus and his family jumping around like a frog, all to fulfill the various prophecies of the Messiah’s birth. The New Testament wasn’t written just to make a good story. It was written to persuade Jews that Jesus was the Messiah.
But what sort of Messiah is crucified?
Jesus ends his worldly life crucified between two thieves. His ignominious death certainly disqualifies him as the Messiah. Except that the Jews writing the New Testament had a brilliant idea. Mark, Matthew, and Luke locate his crucifixion at the time of the Passover. The Last Supper is identified with the Passover meal, and Jesus becomes the new paschal (sacrificial) lamb (Spong, p 149). His death becomes his triumph, and his resurrection a triumph over death. Not just over his death, but a victory over death for all mankind. For Jesus is the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:30), as Isaiah (53:12) had predicted of the Messiah.
A careful carver
The New Testament account is not a myth out of nowhere, but a carefully constructed reinterpretation of the Old Testament to show that Jesus is the true Messiah. If one understands what the Jews writing what we have come to call the New Testament were up to, then separating Jesus as the wise teacher from Jesus as the fulfillment of the predictions of the Hebrew prophets is not only unnecessary. It pulls apart the fabric of a single story. Jesus is not someone new. He is as old as what Christians calls the Old Testament. The Bible is one. Or if one wants to take it apart, then one needs to be like Plato’s careful carver, cutting only where the joints are. Jefferson missed the joints.
* Jefferson did not organize his Bible by chapter and verse, but sequentially. Here I give the usual chapter and verse citations.
** While it is accurate to call Jefferson a deist, his beliefs were complicated, evolved over time, and were expressed differently depending on his audience (www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/jeffersons-religious-beliefs). He compiled his Bible in the last years of his life (1820), so there is reason to believe it reflected his mature beliefs. Jefferson died on July 4, 1826. He wrote the Declaration of Independence, and was our third President. Those were the days. But let’s not forget that he fathered at least six children with his slave, Sally Hemings, the first when Hemings was about sixteen.
John Shelby Spong, Jesus for the Non-Religious. HarperCollins, 2007.